Rubbish Remade as Poetry: The Art of Julie Shiels

Angela Savage looks at a unique form of storytelling, using objects found on the street. Melbourne artist Julie Shiels uses stencil art and photography to make poetry of everyday things, capturing the stories they tell about moments in our lives, big and small.

Melbourne artist Julie Shiels says her exploration of stories told by what we leave on the street began in 2005 with a flattened muselet, the wire that holds a champagne cork in place. But for as long as I’ve known her, Shiels has had a talent for reading the poetry in everyday objects, drawing attention to the magic we might otherwise miss in the streets.

Shiels and I met in Hanoi in the mid-1990s, back when motorcycles outnumbered cars in the streets and drivers bought petrol by the litre from roadside stalls. Vendors advertised by perching recycled glass or plastic bottles of fuel on blocks of wood at the edge of the footpath. I passed such bottles countless times but didn’t appreciate their quirkiness, precariousness and incendiary potential until I saw them in Shiels’ paintings.

These were loud works, green petrol bottles against red backgrounds, part of a 1996 exhibition in Hanoi, which also included paintings of onomatopoeic traffic noises written in the Vietnamese alphabet. The overall effect was a cacophony of light and sound that mirrored life on the street.

The works in Sheils’s current exhibition, As long as it lasts, are quiet by comparison. But they share a sensibility with those paintings in Hanoi, encouraging us to stop and take notice of stories in the street that might otherwise escape our notice.

For nearly a decade, Shiels has been stencilling text onto mattresses, couches and chairs dumped on nature strips in the City of Port Phillip and taking photographs, works which make up the exhibition and a photographic book produced in tandem with it.

Says Shiels: ‘Initially, my interest was in gentrification. I wanted to rework the detritus to reveal the tensions that occur as a suburb becomes simultaneously more desirable and more homogenous… Over time my intention became less political and more poetic, evolving into a reflection on impermanence and the passing of time.’

Her 2005 series, ‘The things people told me’, is ‘concerned with the fragility of life and its circumstances.’ Text stencilled on to dumped items is based on stories told to Shiels by homeless people and others ‘at the margins of society’.

A battered couch on Smith Street is stencilled, ‘Just passing through’. An abandoned mattress on Chapel Street is stencilled in the top left-hand corner with, ‘You never think it will happen to you’ and in the bottom right-hand corner, ‘Then one day it does.’

My favourite in this group is a photograph of a rubber mattress in a rubbish skip that reads, ‘Is it a disease of the soul to be in love with impossible things?’

In each case, Shiels brings object and text together to produce an emotional impact greater than the sum of its parts.

‘The things people said’ (2005-2011) appropriates quotes from authors, poets, philosophers, politicians and artists, ‘selected in response to the materiality of the particular object - its scale, condition, colour, etc - and its location on the street.’

‘All that remains’, taken on South Melbourne beach in 2009, shows a mattress propped up between a couch and a low bluestone wall, a red brick wall on the right, the beach visible in the background. Says Shiels: ‘The brick wall, while suggesting shelter, only provides protection on one side and is open to the sea, which in this moment is picturesque, also peaceful, but we know it is not always like that. I wanted the quote to reflect the melancholy of an ending but the prospect of a beginning, the tension between homelessness and moving on, [the] binaries of inside, outside, order and disorder, good memories, bad memories…’

For ‘One thing leads to another’ (2011-2013), Shiels created the alter-ego feedme and used vinyl lettering to apply quotes from obsolete websites and blogs to abandoned televisions. ‘I was working from screen to screen: redundant words, digital detritus cluttering up forgotten corners of cyberspace, is re-animated by applying it to an obsolete analogue technology that is cluttering up the street.’

A DVD of images runs in the exhibition, screens on footpaths — and even one up a tree — plastered with lines like, ‘I hope tomorrow is like today’, ‘We are everywhere’, ‘I am still alive’ and ‘That’s all folkz’. These works can also be viewed on feedme’s blog Contested Space.

Chance plays a central role in Shiels’s practice. ‘I see the furniture and run home to get [a stencil] from the pile, but often I cut it specifically for the item. Sometimes the item is gone by the time I get back. One time I went to do a TV and the truck was there ready to munch it.’

‘I don’t move [the furniture] to get a better location or image – and I always take the photograph immediately after applying the text. Consequently the photos consistently reproduce the prevailing light and weather conditions, factors beyond my control.’

Shiels’ work is also outstanding for the spontaneous interaction and engagement it enables. Friends alert her to interesting junk, suggest quotes for stencilling, leave comments on her blogs, I love St Kilda and Writing in public space. Passersby may engage with the process if they catch Shiels in the act of stencilling and/or share thoughts on the stencilled objects. In turn, Shiels records these exchanges on her blog.

In her blog post ‘The eye of the beholder’, Shiels tells the story of just having finished photographing the stencilled mattress described above (‘You never think it can happen’) when a man pulled up in a car. He had a quizzical look on his face, so Shiels decided to ask him what he thought it meant:

He replied ‘I’ve been trying to work that out’. And then added, ‘yesterday it just said ‘you never think it will happen to you’ and then today somebody else has added ‘Then one day it does’.

‘I reckon it’s a couple splitting up and they have both written different things.’ And then he added, ‘I’m going to take a photo, too’.

Her work for February’s White Night in Melbourne combines elements of chance and engagement with performance. While Shiels usually stencils only items beyond recycling, in this case, she used functional second-hand chairs and stencilled them with the words, ‘Please take your seat’. The chairs were set up on the lawns of the State Library for people to use throughout the night. By morning — to Shiels’ delight — most had been souvenired, people acting literally on the invitation to ‘take your seat’.

‘A lot of artists orchestrate participation,’ Shiels says. ‘In the case of these works, people invite themselves.’

I like to think of those chairs in homes and gardens across Melbourne, provoking thoughts of the bodies that occupied them in the past, the places that housed them. Maybe even inspiring a little poetry.

Portrait of Angela Savage

Angela Savage is an award-winning Melbourne author.

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